Without Learn’d Astronomers; Or, Walt, Shut Up


A book I just read said that while the sun once held a gloriously central place in the lives of men, it has now been sidelined and downgraded by science — which I disagree with, you can’t find a more dedicated sun worshipper than a solar scientist.   The  book’s complaint is standard English major stuff, that science with all its measuring and calculating has taken from nature its meaning and mystery, its poetry.  Best example:  Walt Whitman’s famous poem about hearing a “learn’d astronomer” talk about proofs and diagrams until he (Walt) got sick and tired; and “rising and gliding out,” he wrote, “I wander’d off by myself/In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time/Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars” ‑‑ the implication being that he (Walt) and not the astronomer appreciated the stars’ true inner poetry.

I too have heard the learn’d astronomer and my opinion is that Walt would have been better off if he had quit gliding around and learn’d a little science.

The photo at the top of the post is the Orion nebula, a cloud creating stars and in the process, blowing the hell out of everything.  The photo just to the left is also the Orion nebula — stars still blowing the hell out of things but now in the infrared, as though our eyes could see outside the optical.

What Walt would have seen looking up in perfect silence was three stars running down off Orion’s belt, three tiny bright sparks.  The spark in the middle is the Orion nebula.

Inside that spark, clouds are thickening, condensing, and slamming together so furiously they’re fusing thermonuclearly and exploding into stars which burn blue-hot and whose radiation creates swirling havoc.  What Walt saw was pretty but without the learn’d astronomer, we’d never have known what the nebula truly was in its own self:  violent, turbulent creation and some of it in light we can’t even see.

And what better and more meaningful poetry than a thing studied for itself, honored for what it is, seen in its own reality?  That’s a rhetorical question.


Some of this post came from a currently unavailable op-ed I wrote for USA Today, Oct 12, 1998.


Orion nebula in the visible:  NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

Orion nebula in the infrared:  NASA/JPL-Caltech


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2 thoughts on “Without Learn’d Astronomers; Or, Walt, Shut Up

  1. After reading this, I had to dash out into the garden to see if my favourite constellation was around. (He’s a leprechaun, by the way, hence his Irish name.) But it’s cloudy, and anyway I don’t think he gets up early at this time of the year.

    The wonder to me is that, actually, Orion only exists on this planet. Astronomers and poets on all of those Goldilocks planets that are being discovered will have their own perspectives on the universe – their own constellations – and their own mythologies devolving from them: but the science will be the same! That’s a truly awesome thought.

    Meanwhile, Ann, your lovely poetry of science will do me for now.

  2. You’re so NICE, Tim. And by the way, that latest Goldilock planet is, in the grand tradition of astronomy though the ages, now in doubt.

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